RANGOON — Amid a general trend toward increased freedoms for Burma’s citizens over the last two years, one segment of the population is facing a renewed campaign aimed at restricting their way of life: smokers.
Anti-tobacco campaigners are calling for stricter enforcement of a law limiting where smokers can light up, industry advertising and the form that sales of tobacco can take. The tobacco control law was enacted in 2006, but enforcement of its provisions has been lax or nonexistent, critics complain.
The law prohibits sale of tobacco to and by minors; sale of tobacco products within school compounds and within 100 feet of schools; sale of cigarettes in loose forms; and sale by vending machine. It also bans all forms of tobacco advertisements and requires printing health warnings in the local language on tobacco products, according to the Ministry of Health’s website.
The legislation was intended to limit minors’ access to tobacco in a country where 99 percent of all cancer deaths are tobacco-related.
“The government needs to enforce the law,” said Htay Win, founder of the Anti-Smoking Campaign Organization Myanmar. “The law should be clearly stated in the media and it should be explained to the public that smoking in public is restricted.”
“I saw in some cities in Irrawaddy Division, there were signposts everywhere that said ‘No Smoking While Walking’ in 1989. It’s something that we should practice, even if it’s not required by law,” said Ma Thida, a well-known writer, doctor and former political prisoner.
“Actually, there are restrictions even on [cigarette] advertising and controls on smoking in public spaces, but no one enforces them anywhere,” she added. “Authorities don’t realize that they should take action. The judiciary cannot weigh in since there are no cases being brought to trial.”
The selling of individual cigarettes can be seen everywhere from tea shops to betel nut stands and grocery stores, despite the practice being explicitly prohibited under the law. Some cigarette and cheroot packs lack health warnings or don’t meet required health standards.
Ma Thida said the absence of designated smoking areas was another concern, exposing smokers and nonsmokers alike to second-hand smoke in public spaces.
“People smoke as they please. There are no facilities for them. No resources to implement the law either,” she said.
“Though it’s their right to smoke in public, it can be argued that there’s a right to breathe unpolluted air by someone walking in public,” she added.
Htay Win said his organization was taking a two-pronged approach to its efforts, involving appeals to lawmakers and a public awareness campaign.
“We do [awareness] campaigns via social media, and we have a blog,” he said. “We also have a sticker campaign, with stickers urging smokers to ‘Save Your Life’ posted in public.
“We lobby members of Parliament and there are some who support our cause.”
Some lawmakers are behind the effort and are considering a push for even more stringent controls on tobacco. Khin Saw Wai, an MP from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), said she was ready to help bolster restrictions on the tobacco industry.
“We discussed this in the third session of Parliament, but they want us to change it into a question rather than a proposal,” said fellow lawmaker Khaing Maung Yi, referring to a push by some to water down the procedural form that their legislative motion would take.
Anti-tobacco campaigners are likely to face headwinds from a tobacco industry that, like many other industries, views Burma as one of Asia’s last frontier markets.
British American Tobacco, the world’s second largest cigarette maker, announced earlier this year that it will invest US$50 million over five years to make and sell cigarettes in Burma.
“There are criticisms of it [the legislative proposal, from tobacco-related businesses]. So, we have prepared a proposal statement on it and are waiting for the right time and situation to submit it,” Khaing Maung Yi told The Irrawaddy.
Htay Win said greater cooperation between lawmakers and law enforcement was necessary for effective policing of the tobacco industry.
“No fines are levied for tobacco law violations. The [tobacco] companies [illegally] advertise and promote. There are no charges against them. The government should announce that [tobacco advertising] is prohibited and that they will take action according to the law,” said Htay Win.
The 2006 tobacco control law stipulates that violators are subject to fines ranging from 20,000 kyats (US$20) to 50,000 kyats for first-time offenders. Second and subsequent offenses are punishable by imprisonment for up to two years and/or fines of up to 200,000 kyats.
“The government has never issued this law to the public and only after we started our campaign did they begin to put some public service announcements on state television once. They should do it quite often as people will forget,” Htay Win said.
The Ministry of Health says 56 percent of Burmese people smoke but figures from an Anti-Smoking Campaign Organization survey puts the number higher, at 66 percent.
If the statistics are accurate, tobacco companies have reason to be optimistic that Burma’s frontier market is a growing opportunity. The Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance found that about 23 percent of Burmese men and 15 percent of women were smokers in 2007.